Much like the decade during which he was president, Bill Clinton, is sometimes a punch line.
When many people remember the '90s, they think of the worst things the decade had to offer: dial-up Internet, parachute pants, spiky frosted N' Sync Hair, butterfly clips…do we need to go on?
It was the same with Clinton. The negative press he got because of his personal life came to eclipse his presidency in pop culture, despite the fact that his administration presided over an unparalleled era of prosperity for America. Think about it: while we were still listening to ska and waiting for the Space Jam website to load, America's economy boomed, the federal government achieved a budget surplus, and America faced no external threats.
How did Bill Clinton pull all this off? He was adaptable. Like the shapeshifters from Star Trek, Clinton never let anyone be too sure what he was—especially whether he was conservative or liberal.
Clinton defined the balancing act of the modern presidency: how to get what you want by giving just enough to your political opponents. It's called compromise, and though the politicians of the 21st century don't talk about it much, it's pretty much the biggest part of the business. In his 1996 State of the Union Address, delivered on January 23rd, the man known (among other things) as the Comeback Kid stared down a hostile Republican majority in Congress and put on a compromise clinic.
During his first term beginning in 1993, Clinton, a Democrat, got a lot of liberal-leaning policies (generally favored by Democrats) passed. He signed gun control legislation, overturned some restrictions on abortion, and signed a law giving workers at big companies better options to take family leave. All of this happened because he had a Democratic Congress backing him.
The script flipped during the mid-term, or Congressional, elections of 1994, when Republicans took over the majority of seats in both chambers of Congress. Approaching the next presidential election in 1996, Clinton faced an uphill battle: how was he going to stay in the top spot in a nation that had moved in a new political direction? During the State of the Union that year, with his eventual opponent for the presidency, Senator Bob Dole, in attendance, he embraced conservatism with some choice rhetoric about issues generally favored by Republicans: shrinking government, family values, and law enforcement.
Smart guy, huh?
This speech is part of the reason why Clinton proved to be a super-controversial president, even before personal scandals eventually dominated his legacy. Throughout his eight-year administration, both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats attacked him and criticized him for his unpredictable political stances.
Some called him a "flip-flopper," while others called him practical and adaptable. So how did someone who managed to make so many enemies make such a big difference?
Like a great jazz musician, Clinton knew how to keep a solo act going with some improvisation. The first Democrat since Franky D. Roosevelt to win reelection (sorry, Jimmy Carter), he knew how to adapt his message to the demands of the times.
So while you're scrolling through Buzzfeed listicle after Buzzfeed listicle about the great things the '90s had to offer (um: Troll dolls, Titanic, the Goosebumps books, 2Pac…) remember Bill Clinton. Because whether you loved the guy as much as drinking Fruitopia or hated him as much as watching Drew Barrymore die in Scream, the guy (and his compromises) is as iconic '90s as they come.
If you want to have an informed discussion about modern politics, you better be prepared to talk about Bill Clinton.
No, that's not just because he and his wife continue to be in the public eye. It's not just because he probably has more rap shout-outs than any other president besides Washington. It's because Bill Clinton rode the political seesaw like no one else…especially in 1996.
Today, American politics are mostly about how much the government can or should get involved in peoples' lives, and in what ways. That's what people mean when they talk about government being "big" or "small." Whether you're "conservative" or "liberal," Republican or Democrat, mostly depends on how you feel about the size of government on particular issues. For example, how much support should the government give to the poor? Should the government provide healthcare? Should it restrict abortions and legislate on social issues?
Real talk, guys. We know.
Republicans, like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, have mostly supported policies that would make government smaller in the world of economics, but increase government oversight of issues like gay rights and abortion. Democrats tend to want to give the government more of a role in the economy, and less of a role in social issues.
Bill Clinton, usually thought of as a conservative or moderate Democrat, did a little of both. In the 1996 State of the Union, Clinton shows his ability to play both sides, and talks about a few issues that could still affect you and/or the people you know.
You're probably interested in whether the government is going to help you pay for college through programs like Pell Grants and federal student loans. These were expanded during Clinton's presidency. On the other hand, you might be worried about finding a job that provides health insurance. Clinton's attempt to create a universal public healthcare system failed…though President Barack Obama later tried something similar with the Affordable Care Act.
These are the kind of political debates that can actually affect people, especially those who have experienced unemployment or poverty. So if you ever plan on paying taxes after you ace your next history test, you might want to familiarize yourself with these issues. The 1996 State of the Union is a good place to start.
So set the 1996 mood by turning on some '96 jams ("No Diggity" by Blackstreet and "Say You'll Be There" by the Spice Girls work nicely), grab a snack that screams mid-nineties (can we suggest a subtle pairing of Fruit By The Foot and Ring Pops?), slip on your comfiest pair of vintage Reebok Questions (they debuted in '96) and get to reading.
William Jefferson Clinton Official White House Page
Find out what the official White House website has to say about the Clinton years.
Miller Center Bill Clinton Fact Sheet
Every factoid you could desire about Bill Clinton and his administration.
Ranking of the Top 10 State of the Union Addresses from RealClearPolitics
The 1996 State of the Union Address comes in at #7.
Michael Waldman Interview About 1996 State of the Union
The former presidential speechwriter describes the drafting process for the famous Address.
Crash Course on the History of American Conservatism
Learn a little bit about why people started to hate on big government.
Full Video of the 1996 State of the Union
Originally broadcast by ABC News, now made available by some random Youtube user.